The alarmed reaction to recent headlines claiming that more than a million UK workers are employed on zero-hours contracts suggests that a substantial proportion of the British public still clings to a rather romantic notion of work.
According to this notion, work involves performing some kind of meaningful activity for eight hours a day, five days a week under a permanent contract of employment, with a range of benefits attached. Anything falling short of that is seen as an exception.
Yet secure work of this type has never been the reality for most women or for many unskilled workers. In most parts of the world where capitalism has prevailed, a high degree of precariousness and impermanence has been the norm: dockers lining up each morning in the hope of being picked to unload a ship; day labourers on building sites; seasonal agricultural workers; employees in factories making goods ruled by volatile and unpredictable business cycles. Only in unusual circumstances have some of these groups managed to negotiate any degree of stability and employment protection for themselves.
Viewed through the long lens of history, though, there was one era during which things were more secure. The post-war period in the West enabled not just a few occupational groups but the majority of the working class to negotiate special deals for themselves. For two or three generations, workers had “never had it so good”.
How did this come about? It was partly because of the scale of the industries operating at the time. Although there were already large multinationals in the 1950s, most companies were still small enough to be seen as regional or national. This gave them a vested interest in negotiating long-term arrangements in their home base.
Another reason is technological. Many processes in the manufacturing industry involved specialist machinery and skills that only a few workers possessed, giving them significant bargaining power. In service industries there was little standardisation or automation, creating dependence on the knowledge of a growing army of bureaucrats and public and private service workers.
But an even bigger part of the explanation was political. The Cold War generated a real fear among governments and employers in Western democracies that unhappy workers might turn to communism. Many aspects of the post-war special deal, variously described by scholars as the “post-war Keynesian welfare state”, “Fordism”, “capitalism’s golden age” (or, in France, “les trente glorieuses”), can be satisfactorily explained only as an attempt to keep the workers happy and the trade unions moderate enough to want to buy into the capitalist system.
This stability began to unravel for private sector workers in 1980s Britain when the miners were defeated by the Thatcher government. But it was not until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that the world entered a new phase of global capitalism in which the need for special deals between employers and employees evaporated. In the early 1990s, the world opened up politically – and at the same time the spread of technological infrastructure and digital literacy reached critical mass, creating a global pool of “information labour”. Suddenly, employers had an unprecedented array of choices. If a job could be carried out via the internet, it could be done anywhere in the world where a workforce could be found with the right language and IT skills. If it needed to be done on the spot, migrant workers could be recruited at a fraction of the wages of indigenous workers – and they would be much less likely to complain about long hours and poor working conditions. Either way, the strategy was in essence the same: drawing on a global labour pool.
Meanwhile, technology has made it ever easier for work to be broken down into micro-tasks. Websites such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, Elance or oDesk make it possible for workers across the world to compete with each other for tasks that might pay only a few cents. And as public sector work is increasingly commodified and drawn into the private sphere, even work traditionally performed by skilled professionals is not immune – witness the ways in which academics are being drawn into the provision of massive open online courses.
This is the atomised, competitive global labour market faced by young people entering the workplace today. With a government committed to further privatisation of public services, more attacks on trade union and employment rights and penal sanctions against jobseekers who refuse what they are offered, the surprise is not that there are a million people working on zero-hours contracts but that there are still so many who do not.